When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. 3 They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) 5 Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. 6 But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. 7 Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” 8 Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (CEB)
Of all the Gospel accounts that describe the reaction of the disciples on the Third Day, I think I like Mark’s the best. To me, Mark’s account feels the most real. In John’s Gospel, when the Disciples see Jesus, they’re filled with joy (John 20:20). In Matthew’s Gospel, the women were filled with fear and excitement and they worshipped Jesus, (Matthew 28:8-9) and when the men saw him, they worshipped him but some doubted (Matthew 28:17).
Luke’s Gospel sounds similar to Mark’s in that the women were frightened of the two men in gleaming white clothes (Luke 24:4-5). The other disciples—the men—as is typical, didn’t believe the women’s tale (Luke 24:11). And when Jesus appeared to the disciples as a group, “They were terrified and afraid. They thought they were seeing a ghost” (Luke 24:37 CEB).
In Mark’s Gospel, the men don’t even bother to show up at the tomb, and the women were so afraid at the resurrection message that they said nothing to anyone. It’s not exactly the glorious day we typically imagine, is it? While some of us might be thinking, What does fear have to do with Easter?, we might take a moment to consider how we would respond if we went to a tomb and some random messenger told us the dead person had been raised and we would soon see them. Even if the person who had died was someone we loved, how would we respond? I imagine the women were afraid the now un-dead Jesus really would appear to them.
Personally, I get why they were terrified. I don’t want to see a ghost either. If I was told that such an encounter with the formerly-deceased was forthcoming, I would probably try to make a run for it. And if that apparition did appear, I’d start throwing whatever I could find at the thing to make it go away. I would feel fear. I would feel terror. And anyone with me in that moment would probably witness the greatest come-apart the world has ever known. What would you do, honestly?
Also, consider the fact that, if Jesus is raised as the messenger proclaimed, the disciples—women and men—might have wondered what he would do to those who had abandoned and deserted him when he was arrested. What would someone who came back from the dead think about his own trusted followers who had disappeared, who fled into the night in fear as soon as they were confronted by the religious and political powers, who turned away from him as soon as things got tough? Jesus might have preached love in his lifetime, but the disciples had betrayed and abandoned him. If he was back, if he was like anyone else, he might be out for a little vengeful punishment. After all, God is just, and they were guilty.
What are we to do with this encounter: women fleeing from an empty tomb, overcome by terror, dread, and fear? They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. What is the church to do with this? Truth be told, if we’ve read the Gospel of Mark, we shouldn’t be surprised by this last story of fear. The disciples and others in Mark’s Gospel were afraid. In Mark, fear acts almost as the antithesis of faith, and Jesus was always trying to get them to have faith instead of giving in to their fear.
When Jesus calmed the storm, he said to his terrified disciples, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?” (Mark 4:40 CEB).
When the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue leader, had died, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just keep trusting” (Mark 5:36 CEB) before he raised her from death.
When a woman touched Jesus and was healed from her disease, she fell down before him in fear and trembling before he told her that her faith had made her well (Mark 5:33-34).
When Jesus walked on the water, the Disciples saw him and screamed in terror thinking he was a ghost, and Jesus said, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid” (Mark 6:49-50).
When Jesus taught his disciples that he would be killed and raised up, they were afraid (Mark 9:32).
When Jesus told the rich man to go and sell what he had and give to the poor because it’s difficult for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and said “many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first,” everyone who heard this teaching was afraid (Mark 10:31-32 CEB).
Can we not imagine why Mark simply ends with the words, “Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8 CEB). Of all the Gospel accounts, Mark’s text speaks most accurately to how wretched and fearful we often are. Everyone who reads Mark’s Gospel gets confronted with the question: will our response to Jesus be fear or faith. So, honestly, I appreciate Mark’s candidness about who we really are, and how afraid we often are about everything.
We post-modern Christians are sometimes even afraid to admit that the resurrection is what it is. We’re secretly embarrassed by the whole idea. Since the mid-twentieth century, some theologians have denied that the resurrection happened. They claim resurrection is a rather awkward tale we’ve conjured up to give us comfort in the face of our impending death, little more than a feel-good measure.
But Paul makes it clear that the resurrection of Jesus is the reality, not a figment of imagination. He said, “So if the message that is preached says that Christ has been raised from the dead, then how can some of you say, ‘There’s no resurrection of the dead’? If there’s no resurrection of the dead, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless. We are found to be false witnesses about God because we testified against God that he raised Christ, when he didn’t raise him, if it’s the case that the dead aren’t raised…” (1 Corinthians 15:12-15 CEB).
Without the resurrection, we have nothing to preach, no good news to proclaim to the world. If Jesus has really and truly been defeated, then we may as well suck it up because everything we witness in the world every day is true. Evil reigns because evil is powerful. Sometimes we see glimpses of goodness here and there, but in the end we die. Everyone dies. Empires and Republics rise and fall. The world spins on its way to oblivion, so we may as well heed the words of Ecclesiasts and eat, drink, and be merry, because ultimately nothing matters. It might even be easier to put on a brave face and deal with God’s absence.
Because, if Jesus has been raised from the dead, then the consequences suggest that, like the women, we have good reason to fear! If Jesus is raised, then nothing is truly immovable, no reality is unchangeable, no future is limited. If God is really on the loose like this, overturing death and flipping the hard facts of life on their head, then we might really face a present and future reality that is beyond our control. If Christ has been raised, then the possibilities are endless! So, it’s understandable—the women at the tomb would certainly understand—if we balk in fear when Paul echoes the messenger at the empty tomb and says, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20a CEB).
All Christian preaching—from the first sermon by Peter in Acts of the Apostles, to the last sermon preached before the Lord returns and the world is made new—all Christian preaching begins with Easter. It begs the question, is Easter Day a big Sunday, or is every Sunday a little Easter? While both are true, in light of Paul’s words, it’s clear that every Sunday is a little Easter. Christ is risen! With the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, God has rewritten human history. God’s righteousness shall overcome evil, sin, and death. The story is not over!
The women approached the tomb that day thinking that the story was over. Jesus had died, and that was that. They would grieve. They would wish the things he had said had come true. But, in the end, the story of Jesus was just another sad story with a tragic ending. To their terrified surprise, they were confronted by a new beginning, a new reality. This story hadn’t ended after all. No, this story had just begun.
Jesus has been raised from the dead, and with his resurrection, God showed us how the world ought to be: a world where there is no more mourning, crying, death, or pain. A world where we forgive in the same way that we have been forgiven. A world where God’s will is done on earth in the same way that God’s will is done in heaven. A world where everyone receives their daily bread because enough is always a feast.
A world where we love our neighbors and recognize that all the world is our neighbor. A world where the hopeless receive a kingdom, where the grieved are made glad, where the humble inherit the earth, where the hungry and thirsty are fed until they are filled, where the merciful received mercy, where the pure in heart see God, where the peacemakers become God’s children, where those who suffer harassment, insult, and evil receive a joyful and glad reward.
“‘Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.’ Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:6-8 CEB).
That could have been the end of the story. If the women had remained imprisoned by their fear, we never would have known. But they did overcome their fear. And they did tell the story. How could they not? And how can we not? Christ has been raised! And the world is forever changed. But, perhaps most importantly, we—like the women on that first Easter morning—are changed, too. And we can never leave the empty tomb the same way we came to it.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
~Rev. Christopher Millay